Later On

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Archive for September 25th, 2022

6 Things to Know About the Microbiome and Your Health

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Brian Simpson writes at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:

Jotham Suez has a tough job.

He studies the microbiome—the universe of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes that each of us is home to. In sheer numbers, there are many of them as there are human cells in the body.

“We’re studying the whole complexity of the human body. We’re also studying the complexity of billions of microbes of hundreds of different species—each one of them with their own genes and their own proteins,” says Suez, PhD, MSc, an assistant professor in the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.

Why study the bugs in our gut, on our skin, behind our ears? Because science is increasingly revealing the massive influence they have on our health.

Below, Suez shares six things you need to know about the microbiome.

1. Your microbiome is like a biological fingerprint.

The collection of bacteria, viruses, and other bugs you have is unique to you. Researchers swabbed computer keyboards in an office for microbes and then swabbed fingertips of workers for a 2010 study. Then they were able to determine which keyboard was used by which person. These person-to-person differences in the microbes that we host can affect everything from our responses to diets and drugs, to disease risk, and even our behavior—they’re as important to our health as our own genes.

2. You have more than one microbiome.

Microbes find multiple ecological niches in and on your body. Your skin microbiome is distinct from your gut microbiome or oral microbiome. Each one has adapted to the conditions there, such as the lack of nutrients on the skin, the moisture or dryness of different areas of the armpit, or the acidity in the vagina.

In fact, while at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Suez worked with gastroenterology colleagues to sample from 18 different sites along the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract of 46 people. In two papers in the journal Cell (here and here), he found that each site had its own unique microbiome signature.

“When we’re trying to understand the mechanisms of how microbes cause disease or promote health, we need to make sure that we’re looking in the right place,” says Suez. “For example, if you’re interested in interactions between the microbiome and the immune system, you might learn more from studying the microbes in the small intestine, rather than the ones washed out in stool samples.”

3. Ask your microbiome what’s the best diet for you. 

Dietary advice is often based on the food’s calories or carbohydrate content rather than who eats the food. It assumes, for example, that if two people ate identical pieces of bread, the changes in the blood glucose would be roughly the same.

Not so.

Suez and his colleagues found that blood glucose levels spiked in some people but didn’t budge in others. In fact, they measured widely different glucose responses to any given food. The takeaway is that the same food or diet can be healthy for some but unhealthy for others.

Based on data collected from hundreds of participants, Suez and colleagues developed an algorithm that could predict glucose responses based on the microbiome alone. In follow up studies by his collaborators, the algorithm was able to recommend a diet that was healthier for individuals with type 1 diabetes or prediabetes than a traditional diet that excluded high-carbohydrate foods like bread altogether.

4. Your medications may soon be changed based on your microbiome. 

Doctors typically  . . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

The big one, IMO, is No. 6:  Noncaloric artificial sweeteners may damage your microbiome–and your health.

Written by Leisureguy

25 September 2022 at 8:15 pm

Mental Health Is Political

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Dr. Danielle Carr, assistant professor at the Institute for Society and Genetics at U.C.L.A., writes in the NY Times:

What if the cure for our current mental health crisis is not more mental health care?

The mental health toll of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the subject of extensive commentary in the United States, much of it focused on the sharp increase in demand for mental health services now swamping the nation’s health care capacities. The resulting difficulty in accessing care has been invoked widely as justification for a variety of proposed solutions, such as the profit-driven growth of digital health and teletherapy start-ups and a new mental health plan that the Biden administration unveiled earlier this year.

But are we really in a mental health crisis? A crisis that affects mental health is not the same thing as a crisis of mental health. To be sure, symptoms of crisis abound. But in order to come up with effective solutions, we first have to ask: a crisis of what?

Some social scientists have a term — “reification” — for the process by which the effects of a political arrangement of power and resources start to seem like objective, inevitable facts about the world. Reification swaps out a political problem for a scientific or technical one; it’s how, for example, the effects of unregulated tech oligopolies become “social media addiction,” how climate catastrophe caused by corporate greed becomes a “heat wave” — and, by the way, how the effect of struggles between labor and corporations combines with high energy prices to become “inflation.” Examples are not scarce.

For people in power, the reification sleight of hand is very useful because it conveniently abracadabras questions like “Who caused this thing?” and “Who benefits?” out of sight. Instead, these symptoms of political struggle and social crisis begin to seem like problems with clear, objective technical solutions — problems best solved by trained experts. In medicine, examples of reification are so abundant that sociologists have a special term for it: “medicalization,” or the process by which something gets framed as primarily a medical problem. Medicalization shifts the terms in which we try to figure out what caused a problem, and what can be done to fix it. Often, it puts the focus on the individual as a biological body, at the expense of factoring in systemic and infrastructural conditions.

Once we begin to ask questions about medicalization, the entire framing of the mental health toll of the Covid crisis — an “epidemic” of mental illness, as various publications have called it, rather than a political crisis with medical effects — begins to seem inadequate.

Of course, nobody can deny that there has been an increase in mental and emotional distress. To take two of the most common diagnoses, a study published in 2021 in The Lancet estimated that the pandemic had caused an additional 53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorder globally.

Let’s think about this. The fact that incidences of psychological distress have increased in the face of objectively distressing circumstances is hardly surprising. As a coalition of 18 prominent mental health scholars wrote in a 2020 paper in The Lancet: “Predictions of a ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems as a consequence of [Covid] and the lockdown are overstated; feelings of anxiety and sadness are entirely normal reactions to difficult circumstances, not symptoms of poor mental health.”

Things get even less surprising when you look more closely at the data: If you bracket the (entirely predictable) spike in psychological distress among health care workers (a fact that itself only reinforces the idea that the major causal vectors in play here are structural), the most relevant predictors of mental health are indexes of economic security. Of course, it’s not simply a question of the numbers on your bank statement — although that is a major predictor of outcomes — but of whether you live in a society where the social fabric has been destroyed.

Before we go further, let me be clear about what I am not arguing. I am not arguing that mental illnesses are fake, or somehow nonbiological. Pointing out the medicalization of social and political problems does not mean denying that such problems produce real biological conditions; it means asking serious questions about what is causing those conditions. If someone is driving through a crowd, running people over, the smart move is not to declare an epidemic of people suffering from Got Run Over by a Car Syndrome and go searching for the underlying biological mechanism that must be causing it. You have to treat the very real suffering that is happening in the bodies of the people affected, obviously, but the key point is this: You’re going to have to stop the guy running over people with the car.

This principle is what some health researchers mean by the idea that there are social determinants of health — that effective long-term solutions for many medicalized problems require nonmedical — this is to say, political — means. We all readily acknowledge that for diseases like diabetes and hypertension — diseases with a very clear biological basis — an individual’s body is only part of the causal reality of the disease. Treating the root cause of the “epidemic” of diabetes effectively, for example, would happen at the level of serious infrastructural changes to the available diet and activity levels of a population, not by slinging medications or pouring funding into clinics that help people make better choices in supermarkets filled with unregulated, unhealthy food. You’ve got to stop the guy running over people with the car.

But if the public health consensus around diabetes has shifted somewhat in response to what we know, it’s been remarkably hard to achieve the same when it comes to mental health.

Psychiatric sciences have long acknowledged the fact that stress is causally implicated in an enormous range of mental disorders, referring to the “stress-diathesis model” of mental illness. That model incorporates the well-documented fact that chronic stressors (like poverty, political violence and discrimination) intensify the chance that an individual will develop a given diagnosis, from depression to schizophrenia.

The causal relationship may be even more direct. Remarkably, all throughout decades of research on mood disorders, scientists doing . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 September 2022 at 8:11 pm

This ‘wine mom’ never questioned her drinking. Then she stopped for a month.

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Cathy Alter has an interesting article in the Washington Post on how she interrupted her drinking. It was particularly interesting to me because I have realized that I have stopped drinking without having made a conscious decision to stop. I have always enjoyed alcohol in the form of wine and spirits and (good) cocktails, but when I started tracking my budget more closely, I realized how much wine and spirits cost, so I decided to cut back on buying them. And as I read more about the effect of alcohol on health, I realized that in fact drinking alcohol significantly increases health risks. The health risk from a single glass of wine or just one cocktail is insignificant, but as I discussed in an earlier post, the “compound-interest” effect of consistently (e.g., daily) doing something that, on any one day, makes but a small difference, will over time result in major gains (e.g., Nordic walking) or major losses (e.g., smoking cigarettes).

One Nordic walk will not do much to improve one’s fitness; daily Nordic walking for a month will make a noticeable improvement. One cigarette (or one drink) will not do much to damage one’s health; daily smoking (or drinking) will in time do considerable damage.

At any rate, once I started tracking my weekly grocery/miscellaneous budget, I stopped buying alcohol. That was at the beginning of this year, and since restaurants are no longer really a thing for me since Covid, I haven’t eaten out much. (When I had dnner in a restaurant, I usually had a drink before dinner and a glass of wine with the meal.)

So, without really meaning to, I did stop drinking, and once I had gone several months without a drink, I realized I didn’t much want a drink because I didn’t like the fuzziness of mind that it produces.

I doubtless will have a drink at Thanksgiving and at Christmas as part of a family celebration, but the occasional and rare drink doesn’t present a problem. It’s the day-in, day-out glass of wine or evening cocktail that presents the compound-interest outcome and, eventually, a serious problem — just as the day-in, day-out Nordic walk results in a significant improvement in fitness (an improvement that is not really noticeable when comparing one day to the following day).

At any rate, I found Cathy Alter’s article (gift link, no paywall) in the Washington Post quite interesting — and the comments also are interesting. The article begins:

It all started with a news release. As a journalist, I get multiple pitches a day: “Best and Worst Cities for Healthy Dogs,” “Why the Buzz about Glutathione?” and, sit down for this one, the opportunity to talk to the founder of Parting Stone, a start-up that turns the ashes of loved ones into smooth rocks and pebbles (40 to 60 of them).

But this email, from Dry Together, really got my attention. Despite sounding like a communal bathhouse, Dry Together is an online hamlet for midlife moms who are seeking ways to cope — with work, with family, with life — that don’t involve a tumbler of alcohol. Founders and former college roommates Holly Sprague and Megan Barnes Zesati, who are both nondrinkers, were inviting women ages 35 to 60 to participate in their second annual Dry January challenge, which would include, among other avenues of support, a weekly one-hour Zoom get-together facilitated by Sprague and Barnes Zesati. “A month without alcohol is sometimes just what moms need in order to

Also by Cathy Alter: When the ‘mean girl’ is a woman

Being the 56-year-old mother of a 10-year-old named Leo and having a nightly habit of a glass or two of boxed red, I met the criteria and, to some degree, the “wine mom” stereotype. I do own a pair of socks that read “My Favorite Salad is Wine.” I once considered bringing a colossal wine glass — a gag gift capable of holding an entire bottle — to my book club. And I texted friends the link to that “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Aidy Bryant unwraps her birthday gifts, a series of increasingly barbed wooden signs reading, for example, “I like you better when I’m effed up.” (Scary Mommy wrote a piece entitled “ ‘SNL’ Wine Skit Is Hilarious Because It’s True.”)

The fact that I was a stereotype gave me pause. Perhaps it was time for me to take a break and, as suggested by Dry Together’s promotional email, consider my relationship with alcohol. I also had recently lost 30 pounds gained in a covid stress haze and had been talking to my husband, Karl, about wanting to get healthier. January, after all, is a time for new beginnings.

I hadn’t gone cold turkey since I was pregnant. But in less time than it takes to say Beaujolais, I paid the $39 monthly fee and awaited instructions.

According to a recent study, while Americans drank 14 percent more compared with before the pandemic, women increased their alcohol intake by 41 percent. I saw this play out in real time, not only in my own uptick (think three glasses of wine on “Bachelor” nights), but also in the renewed habit of a dear friend, an empty nester and recovered alcoholic who had been sober for 40 years.

“Once covid hit, and I was alone in my apartment, I started drinking a glass or two of Prosecco every night — just to ease the loneliness and fear,” she told me. She assured me that she has since stopped, adding: “The precipice is deep and always close.”

Dry Together, which has 40 members, does not ask anyone to identify as an alcoholic. It doesn’t even ask its members to quit drinking — during the month or forever. Abstinence is a choice and, as I learn the first night, a few of the women present were already planning to go back to drinking come February, while others weren’t sure what they would do. It’s a delicate dance, this come-here-go-back dalliance with booze.

As we went around the Zoom room, the 15 women — . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 September 2022 at 6:39 pm

What I can control and what I cannot

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This is very much related to Covey’s circle of concern (no personal control) and circle of influence (personal control and/or influence). See this post.

Written by Leisureguy

25 September 2022 at 2:35 pm

A Chinese Spy Wanted GE’s Secrets, But the US Got China’s Instead

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Jordan Robertson and Drake Bennett report in Bloomberg Businessweek:

In January 2014, Arthur Gau, an aerospace engineer who was nearing retirement age, received an unexpected email from a long-lost acquaintance in China. Years before, Gau had made a series of trips from his home in Phoenix to speak at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or NUAA, one of China’s most prestigious research institutions. The original invitation had come from the head of a lab there studying helicopter design. Increasingly, however, Gau had heard from someone else, a man who worked at the university in a vague administrative capacity. Little Zha, as the man called himself, was the one who made sure Gau never had to pay his own airfare when he came to give talks. When Gau brought his mother on a 2003 visit, Zha arranged and paid for them to take a Yangtze cruise to see the river’s dramatically sculpted middle reaches before they were flooded by the Three Gorges Dam.

The relationship had ended awkwardly, though, when Zha offered Gau money to come back to China with information about specific aviation projects from his employer, the industrial and defense giant Honeywell International Inc. Gau ignored the request, and the invitations stopped.

Now, in 2014, Little Zha was reaching out again. The two started corresponding. In early 2016, Gau, whose interests extended far beyond avionics, said he’d planned a trip to China to visit some friends in the musical theater world. Zha was there that spring to meet him at the airport in Beijing. Waiting with him was a colleague Zha was eager for Gau to meet.

Xu Yanjun was on the tall side, at 5 feet 10 inches, with closely cropped hair, glasses, and a tendency toward bluntness. The three had dinner and met up again before Gau flew back to the US. Over pastries in Gau’s hotel room, they discussed Taiwanese politics—Gau grew up there—as well as the engineer’s evolving responsibilities at Honeywell. Late in the evening, Xu handed Gau $3,000 in cash. Gau would later testify that he tried to hand it back, but Xu was insistent. “And then, you know, back and forth, but I took it eventually.”The next year, Gau came back to China to give another lecture—this time a private one in a hotel room to several engineers and officials, including Xu. In preparation, Gau had emailed over PowerPoint slides containing technical information, including algorithms and other sensitive design data for the aircraft auxiliary power units Honeywell makes. “Because of the payment, I felt obligated,” he would later tell a judge.

Xu paid him $6,200 more, and two of his associates accompanied the visiting engineer on a two-day sightseeing trip to West Lake, famed for its picturesque gardens, islands, and temples. Gau was planning his next visit when, in the fall of 2018, agents from the FBI appeared at his home in Arizona to execute a search warrant. There would not be another trip. Xu, the agents explained, was not in Nanjing anymore. He wasn’t even in China. He was in Ohio, in a county jail awaiting trial.

The issue of Chinese industrial espionage is a fraught one. In November 2018, Jeff Sessions, then the Trump administration’s attorney general, announced a program called the China Initiative, intended to combat “the deliberate, systematic, and calculated threats” from Chinese government-directed intellectual-property theft. The program, however, ended up targeting largely academics—not for stealing secrets, but for failing to report affiliations with Chinese research institutions. In some instances, even those charges proved meritless. In February, amid concerns over ethnic profiling and the criminalization of scientific collaboration, the Biden administration shut down the China Initiative, though it vowed to continue pursuing cases involving the country.

Nonetheless, the remit of Chinese intelligence services does cover industrial secrets as well as military and government ones, and their leadership takes that responsibility seriously. It’s what rising economic powers have always done: In the late 18th century, the newly independent US offered bounties for textile workers to smuggle loom designs from the great British cotton mills. Those mills had been built in part to specifications once pilfered from Italian silk spinners. And that industry, in turn, wouldn’t have existed without silkworm eggs spirited out centuries before from China.

The modern Chinese industrial espionage apparatus—in its organization, scope, and ambition—far eclipses those predecessors. “We consistently see that it’s the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech in July. Since the 1990s, prosecutors have charged almost 700 people with espionage, IP theft, illegally exporting military technology, and other crimes linked to China. Two-thirds of the cases have led to convictions, according to a database kept by Nick Eftimiades, a former official at the US Department of Defense and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council; most of the rest are pending or involve fugitives. All are part of an intelligence-gathering apparatus that relies not only on trained spies and officers of China’s Ministry of State Security but also on ordinary engineers and scientists. This machinery remains largely opaque to outsiders. Limited to going after the people feeding information to handlers in China, US authorities have been like narcotics investigators pursuing low-level buy-and-busts while the larger criminal infrastructure hums along unscathed.

At least, that was the case until Xu Yanjun’s trial last fall. His arrest marked the first time an MSS officer was lured out of China and extradited to the US. And it was more than a symbolic victory, yielding an extraordinary trove of digital correspondence, official Chinese intelligence documents, even a personal journal. When Xu was apprehended, he had with him an iPhone whose contents he’d faithfully backed up to the cloud, a lapse that allowed FBI investigators to recover all the data from Apple Inc. Asked about the case, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded, “The accusations by the US are completely fabricated. We demand the US handle the case in a fair manner and ensure the legitimate rights of Chinese citizens.”

Over two and a half weeks from late last October into November, federal prosecutors in a courtroom in Cincinnati drew on the wealth of digital material the 41-year-old Xu had stockpiled to lay out a portrait of him—his training, methods, and ambitions, his vices and private doubts and grievances. Translated from the original Mandarin, it’s an unprecedentedly intimate portrait of how China’s economic espionage machine works, and what life is like for its cogs. . .

Continue reading. No paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

25 September 2022 at 1:53 pm

Exercise your diaphragm

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NPR’s Allison Aubrey has an interesting report:

It’s well known that weightlifting can strengthen our biceps and quads. Now, there’s accumulating evidence that strengthening the muscles we use to breathe is beneficial too. New research shows that a daily dose of muscle training for the diaphragm and other breathing muscles helps promote heart health and reduces high blood pressure.

“The muscles we use to breathe atrophy, just like the rest of our muscles tend to do as we get older,” explains researcher Daniel Craighead, an integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. To test what happens when these muscles are given a good workout, he and his colleagues recruited healthy volunteers ages 18 to 82 to try a daily five-minute technique using a resistance-breathing training device called PowerBreathe. The hand-held machine — one of several on the market — looks like an inhaler. When people breathe into it, the device provides resistance, making it harder to inhale.

How it works

The video weirdly says that the device “strengthens the lungs,” but that doesn’t make any sense. The lungs have no muscular tissue to strengthen. The device does clearly strengthen the diaphragm (a muscle) and probably also muscles in the rib cage, but the lungs? I don’t think so. 

I suspect the error is from an uninformed marketing person want to make a product sound better, much like advertising copy that describes radio receivers as “powerful” if the receiver can effectively amplify weak signals. Transmitters can be powerful, but good receivers are sensitive. A “powerful” receiver makes no sense. Nor does the idea making the lungs “stronger.”

The article continues:

“We found that doing 30 breaths per day for six weeks lowers systolic blood pressure by about 9 millimeters of mercury,” Craighead says. And those reductions are about what could be expected with conventional aerobic exercise, he says — such as walking, running or cycling.

A normal blood pressure reading is less than about 120/80 mmHg, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These days, some health care professionals diagnose patients with high blood pressure if their average reading is consistently 130/80 mmHg or higher, the CDC notes.

The impact of a sustained 9 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure (the first number in the ratio) is significant, says Michael Joyner, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who studies how the nervous system regulates blood pressure. “That’s the type of reduction you see with a blood pressure drug,” Joyner says. Research has shown many common blood pressure medications lead to about a 9 mmHg reduction. The reductions are higher when people combine multiple medications, but a 10 mmHg reduction correlates with a 35% drop in the risk of stroke and a 25% drop in the risk of heart disease.

The training helps prevent high blood pressure too

“I think it’s promising,” Joyner says about the prospects of integrating strength training for the respiratory muscles into preventive care. It could be beneficial for people who are . . .

Continue reading.

I ordered this model ($26) rather than the POWERbreathe ($115). Both models will give your diaphragm a good workout.

Written by Leisureguy

25 September 2022 at 12:02 pm

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